The new chairman of the powerful Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has pledged to boost the federal timber harvest in southwest Oregon.
"The cut level in southwestern Oregon has been, in my view, unacceptable," U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told the Medford Rogue Rotary Club Friday. "You can be very sure that I will be pushing hard through hearings as chairman of this committee to turn that around."
Wyden's comments came after being told that Rough and Ready Lumber Co. in Cave Junction had been forced to close for a week and lay off its workers because of a lack of logs.
In an interview with the Mail Tribune following his talk, Wyden said he did not have a specific figure in mind but felt the harvest level was too low for the economy and the environment.
Much of the local federal forestland is unnaturally overstocked, creating a situation ripe for wildfire and disease, he noted.
He also expressed concern that sequestration — mandatory federal budget cuts — would result in more harvest reduction because of cuts to the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. The cuts would go into effect March 1 unless Congress and the Obama administration can settle their financial differences.
"Let's just say it (the timber harvest) is way short of what the pledged target has been," he said. "They are a long, long way from the pledged target, and that is what we have to change."
Wyden said finding a way to break the impasse over logging is critical to the survival of rural Oregon communities.
"There is a common thread among all these communities," he stressed. "They want good paying jobs. They want to protect their treasure. And they want to make sure they don't become ghost towns."
In answer to a question from the audience, Wyden indicated he would reach out to all sides in the debate over how much federal timberland should be harvested. That includes Gov. John Kitzhaber's forest task force, he noted.
"We all are trying to find common ground between timber folks and environmental folks — that's really the coin of the realm," he said.
He observed it can be done, noting he was able to create a bill for the east side of the Cascades after working with diverse factions. "Trust is the key," he said.
However, he noted the issues associated with federal forests on the west side of the state are more challenging, in part because of the checkerboard pattern of federal and private ownerships.
In other issues, Wyden said the Pacific Northwest is poised to take advantage of an energy revolution.
"I think we have a chance to build a great American success story now in energy," he said. "It relates to the huge transformative development in natural gas."
Oregon and other segments of the nation are now being asked to become energy exporters instead of importers, he said.
"Natural gas has allowed us to have a genuine red, white and blue advantage," he said. "Natural gas is cleaner than other fossil fuels by about 50 percent. The world wants it, and we got it."
But he cautioned the nation must be able to balance all aspects of energy production, including assisting businesses and consumers by keeping natural gas prices low, rather than exporting so much that prices are driven up.
"My top priority as chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee is to find that sweet spot where we can come as close to possible to having it all," he said. "Let's make sure we wring every bit of this American advantage out for our country."
He also noted that Oregon is in a position to take advantage of renewable energy, including hydropower, geothermal power and biomass power.
"Overstocked stands are magnets for fire," he said, noting material from thinned forests can produce biomass energy while reducing the threat of catastrophic fires.
"When we make our forests healthier with that kind of thinning work, we also have a healthier economy," he said. "We have a chance then to do right by both our families and the environment."
That should include salvaging trees killed by drought, disease or wildfire, he added later, in answer to a question from the audience.
But Wyden indicated other issues could become a moot point if the government did not work together to solve its budgetary problems.
"We are going to have to start bringing people together on this to find a solution," he said. "I am very much interested in working with both sides of the aisle on this because it really is the ball game."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.